Short blocks go a long way toward explaining why some streets really work

No matter how impressive One Bloor condos might be, the obliteration of Roy's Square to make way for them will cost Toronto. //BriColeUrbanism photo, by way of Flickr.

This item was first posted at City Builder Book Club, where you’ll find lots of great posts about chapters from Jane Jacobs’s 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Visit and read, and get out and walk. Go on a Jane’s Walk http://citybuilderbookclub.org/2012/03/stephen-wickens-on-the-need-for-small-blocks/

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Apart from a brief post at Torontoist, the erasure of Roy’s Square for the 1 Bloor condos went unmourned. And two stops down the Yonge subway, the Aura condos rise, snuffing hopes of those who cared that a block of Hayter Street was shut in 1978.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been around 50 years and Jane Jacobs has been gone more than five, but ‘The need for short blocks’, the second of her four conditions indispensable for generating diversity, remains overlooked.

On Condition 4, density, converts abound, though understanding is often dangerously simplistic. It’s tough to gauge how we fare on No. 3, but mingling buildings of different ages is widely discussed. As for No. 1, land-use mixes, there has been progress, though it will remain limited till people really get the crucial differences between primary and secondary uses.

Short blocks, alas, tend to be viewed as insignificant if noticed at all. It’s no surprise that one-offs such as Roy’s Square are forgotten. But multiplied over a city or a metropolitan area, and the absence or loss of short blocks undercuts street life and economic viability. Implications are lasting and hard to correct.

Rudimentary maps of New York's West 80s help illustrate why increasing opportunities for pedestrians to turn corners increases the number of viable business locations.

In Chapter 9, “The Need For Small Blocks,” Jacobs combines common sense, basic observation and rudimentary maps of streets in Manhattan’s West 80s, between Central Park and Columbus Avenue, to illustrate how longer blocks isolate pedestrians, limiting their options and leaving many streets “stagnant backwaters.”

“The supply of feasible spots for commerce rises considerably” when street grids increase chances for pedestrians to turn corners. Even slight variations in sidewalk traffic will make or break nascent enterprises, so it’s easy to see how seemingly minor changes to street patterns trigger virtuous and vicious cycles.

The chapter, the book’s shortest at just nine pages, explains a mystery that baffled New Yorkers after street-deadening elevated rail lines were removed from 3rd Avenue and 6th Avenue. On the West Side, where the blocks were long, the move had little effect. On the East, with its short blocks, revitalization erupted.

Of course, cities are complex and organic, so it’s foolish to consider conditions in isolation, something Jacobs reminded me of in a 2005 discussion on block-length effects in Toronto.

Referring to the underperforming Sheppard subway, she decried local media’s fixation with the new residential density along the line. “A few tall buildings don’t constitute healthy urban form. Even near the stations, people aren’t walking in large numbers,” she said, pointing out that land uses remain separated and there aren’t enough primary uses attracting people.

Furthermore, because the area can’t provide a real mix of building ages for generations, she said it’s doubly essential the other diversity generators be present. “As long as the blocks are long, you can be sure the area will be off-putting for pedestrians and, for the most part, economically barren,” she said. “Density in the absence of short blocks is usually trouble.”

Regarding Danforth Avenue east of Pape, Jacobs indicated that those who noticed the area’s decline as car ownership grew and after subway replaced the streetcar in 1966, tend to overestimate transportation’s role. “If this is like typical blue-collar neighbourhoods from the early 20th century, you’ll find there was significant loss of industry after the war,” she said. “These losses devastated the area’s primary-use mix.”

Most Danforth blocks west of Pape can be walked at an easy pace in less than a minute. The first block east on the south side takes four minutes, so it's no surprise that the street life dies off.

Then, after a warning about how misleading maps can be, she said my quest to understand the Danforth’s split personality should “start with a good, scaled map; compare block lengths.”

Sure enough, the things she identified in New York apply here. To the west of Pape Ave., in Greektown, where businesses and sidewalks thrive, it takes less than a minute to walk most blocks at an easy pace. Sometimes 45 seconds will do.

The first south-side block east of Pape is unbroken all the way to Jones Avenue and takes nearly four minutes to walk. The long-block east-west streets to the south have little real connection the Danforth. And all through the areas further east, often called the “Other Danforth,” where a “blight of dullness” arises, long blocks dominate at least one side of the street until the rail corridor veers close enough to do further damage by truncating neighbourhoods to the south.

From Roy’s Square, to the Danforth, to New York, Europe and beyond, the role of vitality’s four generators is universal. But while we often add density and mixes of uses, and we sometimes let our buildings age, we rarely add streets and shorten blocks.

It troubled Jacobs to the end.

The best way to thank her for explaining this crucial detail, which was hidden in plain view all along, is to ensure we leave as many small blocks as possible to our descendants.

Good luck, Andy Byford. Your new job is laden with potential pitfalls

                                                                                                                                                                     Gary Webster, left, talks with interim successor Andy Byford before the special TTC meeting that led to the switch. Even if bad things happened under Webster, his dismissal without just cause was a mistake, damaging Toronto’s reputation as a place for good transit people to work.

Nearly everything about the way the TTC is structured and governed must change if good advice, wise planning and quality transit at a reasonable price are to be priorities. Otherwise, Andy Byford will go the way of his predecessors.

Good luck Andy Byford!

Next to crime and trauma scene cleanup specialist, leading the Toronto Transit Commission is the worst job in your new home city.

The fact that your three most recent predecessors were forced out by politicians barely scratches the surface of what’s wrong with this gig. If you are the man for the job and if you dig deep, you’re sure to conclude that starting points must be a new relationship with elected officials, a new corporate culture and a total restructuring, including a spun-off entity that fosters commercial integration of transit and land-use.

Customer service panels, town halls and the addition of citizen commissioners can only diddle with the symptoms of a decades-long decline.

Yes, it was petty and counterproductive for those five commissioners to axe Gary Webster, but you’re surely smart enough to see through the political posturing, even if many seemingly intelligent Torontonians swallowed whole. You must have seen similar backstabbing and disingenuousness while working in Australia and the U.K.

TTC managers have been pressured to tailor advice for political purposes going back at least to the 1970s, when we somehow chose to maroon stations of the Spadina subway in the median of an expressway.

Good but powerless experts foresaw woes of the Scarborough RT well before it was built. And those who felt in 1989 that we should cut our losses and scrap that line were effectively silenced.

Pressure to manufacture a case for the Sheppard subway and play down the urgency of a long-proposed line through the downtown core, beginning 30 years ago, will cast a shadow over many debates you’ll have to lead.

In fact, there’s a good case to be made that all pending plans for Eglinton, Sheppard, Finch or a northerly extension of the Yonge subway are trouble if the so-called Downtown Relief Line can’t jump the queue. (Little-known fact: tiny, cramped Yonge-Bloor station sees more daily passenger movements than Pearson airport and Union Station combined).

Of course, politics also played a big role in the rush to create the Transit City plan in March 2007, and to sell it to the public ever since. There are people still shaking their heads over a decision by one TTC manager to attend and appear prominently at the launch of Adam Giambrone’s brief run for the mayoralty.

The latest census shows Toronto has 2.615 million transportation experts. But, while many realize transit is a problem of organized complexity, most seem to prefer simplistic debate — black or white, left or right, subway or light rail. This suits our ideologically riven council members who want us to shut off our brains and pick sides. It’s also essential to mainstream media, which increasingly cater only to those with short attention spans.

But it doesn’t help anybody make wise decisions.

Compounding the mess, Andy, is that Toronto wasn’t big when the car became king. The pre-amalgamated cities of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough have about half the density of old inner Toronto, and the gap isn’t closing. Those outer areas were designed for cars and drivers, but are now populated by people who need transit. Alas, the built form makes quality cost-efficient service delivery tough.

Our long-standing assumption that pushing subways into suburbs would automatically drive urbanization turned out to be bunk. However, attempts to get the TTC to seriously consider how to adapt and adopt creative funding models and aggressive value-capture tools, like those used in the Far East, have been met with disinterest at best (while still a city councillor in 2003, David Miller got the TTC to agree to report on transit development corporation models like the one in Hong Kong, but despite repeated requests over years, the TTC has been unable to produce evidence that it did any work on the project).

Even the mayor’s office, which purports to favour private-sector involvement, had the most interesting parts of Gordon Chong’s report on subway financing chopped before publication (make sure your copy is an early uncorrected proof containing Chapter 7, “Other Value Capture: Revenue Generation Options”).

If we truly believe transit spending is an investment, returns on the investment have to start becoming a priority. If we do that, it forces intelligent debate on the real relative costs of subways and light rail. We’re likely to still conclude LRT is the way to go in many cases, but the debate will have been honest.

Sorry if you probably know all this, but talk with your vice-chair, Peter Milczyn; he seems increasingly attuned to the possibilities and the shortcomings of our previous model.

Make sure you thank your predecessor for eventually standing up and opposing the loony idea of burying light rail under Eglinton East, but you might ask him where was he on the possibly-as-wasteful design and funding models for the ongoing Spadina-York subway extension. Deep-bore tunnels through low- and no-density areas and grandiose standalone stations make this project far more costly than it needed to be up front, while hindering the long-term development processes that can help it pay back.

Yes, some bad things happened under Webster, but overall he was just the latest fall guy for a dysfunctional organization.

For years, one of Toronto’s most revered and entertaining transit experts has been saying, off the record and only partly in gest: “The fastest way to find yourself unemployed in this town is to speak the truth.”

Some part of that wisdom will always be true.

You’ll have to choose your battles, even in your interim role. But unless you get extremely wise help to start radically altering the rules of the game, you’re guaranteed to lose – as is Toronto, again.